Robot media is like smiles and laughter; it transcends age, gender and culture to bring joy to humanity. There's something invariably compelling about fantasising about the destruction of human life through scorned machines.
Just kidding. Robots aren't all about doom and death. Pixar's Wall-E, a robot love story, recently opened in theatres to rave reviews. The film explores the complex relationship between human and machine, creator and “servant.” Can artificial life created in a spark of inspiration thrive alongside that which has evolved over billions of years?
(Okay, killer death robots are awesome too.)
Japan is often cited as the world's greatest contributor to the field of robots—both the real-world kind that put the cap on your toothpaste and the fantasy kind that exist in manga and fly off to fight evil in the name of robot justice.
Japan and America pass influences back and forth when penning science fiction tales about artificial intelligence. It's not unusual to see a nod from one to the other when a popular work of sci-fi captures the imaginations of its readers or viewers. Aside from being inspired by one another, both cultures were smitten by German director Fritz Lang's 1927 film, Metropolis. The creative desire to study the struggle between man and machine was largely sparked by this silent movie about a robot stuck between a raging class war.
Despite parallel themes in robot-related fiction, Japan and America still have different ways of exploring such conflicts. Movies like Wall-E focus around robots that are at least partially sentient and often struggle to find and affirm their “humanity.” Japan, on the other hand, prefers robots that must be piloted by human hands, often for the sake of war. Series like Gundam look at humanity's tendency to both revere and exploit that which it creates.
Yet it's not unheard of for either country to combine both themes. The most obvious example would be Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka's mechanical boy hero who was very much sentient—and sometimes manipulated.
America's own example is Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, a comic book mini-series by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow about Big Guy, a worn robot (and archaic by future standards) fighting alongside a modern sentient boy robot named Rusty.
Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot was later adapted into an under-appreciated cartoon series at the turn of the millennium. Additional substance was added to the story and the result was a compelling tribute to both American and Japanese science fiction fans. The animated series especially contrasted the differences between piloted mechs against sentient robots and not just through obvious design choices: Rusty, who was immature and required “tutoring” from Big Guy, looked up to his mentor like a hero. The cast therefore worked their hardest to make sure Rusty never risked deflating his “robot pride” by finding out Big Guy was actually piloted by a human.
Though the themes found in Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot were a bit more well though-out than the usual Saturday morning cartoon fare, there was still plenty of fun and humour to be had. The series struck a good balance between lightheartedness and seriousness, therefore avoiding goofy cartoon stereotypes and the pit of angst that mech-based anime like Gundam W and Gundam Seed steep in.
But Japan and America's love affair with robots can't be explained with a few paltry paragraphs. Over the next couple of weeks, the Mumbling Kitsune will look at some true credits to the robot race.